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Don't burn it, don't bury it: Vancouver seeks novel ways of dealing with trash Add to ...

Find something else to do with garbage besides burning it or burying it.

That's the direction Metro Vancouver politicians say the region is now going in, in the wake of a contentious and confusing vote about 21st-century solutions to the Lower Mainland's garbage.

"Our council wanted something that would allow knowledgeable companies to bid that aren't just burning it or storing it," said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, who proposed the solution that got the majority of votes Friday - after a five-hour debate among representatives of the 22 member municipalities. "Incineration may be where we end up, but now we're saying 'let's look at other options in the process.' "

To many, it appeared the anti-incineration forces on the Metro board had lost because the final decision was one that directed staff to invite bids for incineration proposals inside or outside the Lower Mainland.

But, in fact, staff will be asking for bids from companies on all possible solutions for the region's garbage, including alternatives such as gasification, converting plastics to fuels and other innovative technologies that are just starting to be used by a few other pioneering cities. "It was almost an anti-incineration vote," says Mr. Stewart. "There were many who voted for this because they were uncomfortable with incineration."

Even more significant, politicians insisted an independent reviewer assess the many bids they're expecting to come forward from private companies proposing new approaches.

That's because they are concerned Metro Vancouver staff are locked into seeing only one solution - an incinerator somewhere in the region.

"One of my concerns is that staff have a clear preference for mass incineration in the region and anything they do will drive us towards that," says Vancouver Councillor Heather Deal. "So we're going to keep a close eye on how the request for proposals is written."

The struggle over incineration, landfills and alternatives to both is not unique to Vancouver. Municipalities everywhere in the industrialized world are grappling with those options.

Incinerators are gaining popularity in Europe, where builders have introduced much more sophisticated technologies to prevent ash dispersal and the formation of toxic chemical compounds.

But they've been a difficult political sell in North America.

Confusing the public, environmentalists are divided on incinerators. Some say they are a better option than trucking garbage long distances where it is left to decompose in landfills, where it produces methane gas. Others say even the new incineration technology doesn't completely eliminate harmful chemicals or air pollution. There are also dozens of other side debates as people calculate the environmental pluses and minuses.

The Vancouver councillors who are delegates to Metro Vancouver have come down firmly on the side of saying incineration is still problematic and alternatives, the kind cities such as Los Angeles and Copenhagen are using, should be explored more energetically.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said that, even though the Metro Vancouver vote directs staff to solicit bids from companies with alternative methods, he worries the incineration industry will prevail because it's more established.

"I fear that the deck is stacked. Incineration has a competition edge advantage over emerging technologies that may be a little more experimental."

He said the lever Metro reps have now, thanks to the motion that was eventually passed, is they can insist on factoring in health and environmental factors, not just cost, into assessing any bids.

However, that assessment is likely to be just as challenging as last week's decision.

North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto said he has been convinced by the science that incineration is the best solution. Everything he has seen or read indicates to him the health and environmental benefits of the new technologies is minimal, but the cost differences are huge.

"We have to look at how we're going to afford these things."

Metro Vancouver's plan has to be approved by the province before any requests for bids can be put out. Environment Minister Barry Penner has already seen energetic opposition to incineration plants in his riding.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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